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Tony Bennett charged in ethics complaint

A complaint from the Indiana Inspector General’s office says former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett broke the law by using state resources for political purposes.

The complaint says Bennett and his Indiana Department of Education Employees spent his work time and used office computers and telephones for the campaign. Inspector General David Thomas, a Republican, declined further comment. In September, the Associated Press reported it had obtained documents through public records requests that showed two Republican donor lists were stored on education department office computers and that he and his staff discussed 2012 campaign details via email. Bennett’s calendar also listed what appeared to be campaign phone call appointments.

The revelations riled Democrats, who said they were proof that Bennett broke state campaign laws that forbid elected officials and their staffs from engaging in any political activities from their public offices or using public resources. At the time, Bennett rejected the allegations as patently false.

In a statement Thursday, Bennett did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

“Throughout my time in public service I made every effort to be cognizant of and to follow state rules and guidelines for elected officials,” he said. “I understand no conclusions have been made in this matter and I look forward to working with the Ethics Commission and the Inspector General’s office to demonstrate proper adherence to state rules and guidelines.”

But Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody countered with his own statement Bennett put politics above the public interest.

“The complaint filed by the Indiana Inspector General today alleges that former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett led a culture of corruption by misleading Hoosiers and abusing the trust of the office to which he was elected,” he said.

It’s not clear what the potential ramifications are for Bennett. The complaint will lead to a hearing before the Indiana State Ethics Commission. Bennett will be able to answer the charges with his own evidence and arguments, with Thomas in a role similar to that of a prosecutor making the case that Bennett broke the law. If the complaint is accepted by the commission, Bennett could be fined or even charged with a crime.

The Indianapolis Star reported earlier this year that just two officeholders in the last 30 years faced criminal sentences for violating the same law. Neither did any jail time but one was given a suspended jail sentence. Instead their punishments involved mostly fines and community service.

This was the latest of a series of woes for Bennett in Indiana as a result of news reports on emails from his time in office between 2008 and 2012, when he was defeated by Glenda Ritz. In January, he took a similar post as that state’s education commissioner. The email controversy cost him that job, as he resigned in the midst of a whirlwind of news stories out of Indiana.

The primary complaint against Bennett initially was that he had manipulated the state’s A to F school grading rules to protect a charter school, run by a wealthy campaign contributor, from getting a lower grade than in the past. Ultimately, a report issued by two outside investigators, hired by Republican legislative leaders, said Bennett’s changes to the A to F system were sensible. That probe declined to explore the potential political motivations of Bennett and his staff.